Bartlett Sher’s production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia has proved one of the more admired stagings of the Peter Gelb regime, but I’ve avoided it due to a surfeit of Barbieres and to fond memories of the previous “turntable” production, which satisfied every demand one might reasonably make of a Barbiere: The complicated story was told clearly, the stage pictures were handsome and the set changes elegant, the funny business was funny and to the point, the movement rapid. Even Rossini’s thunderstorm got laughs, as a projected starry sky was gradually effaced by clouds and real rain while the set spun around below. I wasn’t crazy about the barber’s updated costume and I could have done without the donkey – the donkey is the one item Mr. Sher retained.
The new production, which I saw on October 8, does not get in the way of the storytelling (a major point! especially in a comic opera), does not introduce new sub-plots the composer never delineated (a defect of the recent stagings of Tosca, Sonnambula and Fidelio, among others), the stage pictures are attractive and will endure repeated viewing (unlike Tosca), the funny business is sometimes funny – and gives scope, as a comedy staging should, for funny performers to make it more so; there are inexplicable touches (what is that giant anvil in the sky, aside from a sign of Mr. Sher out of ideas? Why does Bartolo’s china closet explode?), and the movement is constant if not always logical. Seville, indicated in the previous production by the city’s famous white walls and a splendid conservatory in the courtyard of Bartolo’s mansion, is now implied by many, many doors and an orangery. At one point, the Count, playing a drunken soldier, makes a swipe at an orange tree with his saber – and appeared to slice it through – the best laugh of the night. I’d give the production a solid B, maybe a B-plus.
The most distinctive part of the Sher staging – aside from the moveable doors that comprise most of the set, and which are often used to delightful farcical advantage – is the platform around the orchestra pit that allows singers to leave the action and come warble to us intimately, duck out of busy action entirely, complain about how badly they are being used by other characters – or hand out business cards to the audience, as Figaro does during the curtain calls. This parade in front of the apron also allows a solid but underpowered cast to make a more powerful effect than they would if they remained center stage. There was certainly an improvement in sound quality when they stepped forward.
Among the singers last Thursday night, the smoothest, most elegant, most satisfying performance came from Bulgarian newcomer Orlin Anastassov, who possesses the requisite size, depth and legato for Don Basilio and is an amusing comic actor to boot. It is no surprise to see in the program that he is singing Boito’s Mefistofele elsewhere this year – that’s an opera that the Met could certainly use back in its repertory, and he’s a likely candidate to put over a role that calls for an agile actor as well as a remarkable voice.
Rodion Pogossov, a showman of great charm and comic energy – you may well remember his Papageno – sang a most entertaining Figaro, with a seductive and self-seductive way of phrasing. John Del Carlo, a familiar and excellent buffo quantity, fudged the racing patter of “A un dottore del mio sorte,” as so many Doctor Bartolos do, but proved an effective foil for the antics of all the others throughout the evening. You can’t have a farce if the villain isn’t convincingly alarming – if he’s not, nobody else’s antics make sense. Del Carlo, tall as a Wagnerian giant, can be alarming while full of self-pity, which is just what we want.
Barry Banks is a comic actor the equal of any bel canto tenor going – his smarmy smiles as the feigned “Don Alfonso” were especial joys – and his coloratura technique is remarkable, but the quality of the voice itself was dry in “Ecco ridente” and rather hollow the rest of the night. Dramatic intensity (as Oreste in Rossini’s Ermione) and delirious self-parody (as Thisbe in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) are his fortes; romantic heroes are not.
That brings us to the ladies. Joyce Di Donato is a few years into an important career. She is an excellent comic actress – you listen to her, yes, but you also watch, just to see what she’ll come up with next. She works the manic fireworks of “Contro il cor” in the Lesson Scene into a simultaneous show of brilliant vocalism and stage hilarity like no other Rosina I’ve seen, and when she dashes out on that walkway to deliver the evening’s few big phrases, her strong line suggests that many of the grander bel canto roles (Adalgisa, Elisabetta Tudor, La Favorite) would suit her well, but in some of her rapid-fire phrases in “Una voce poco fa” and elsewhere, she seemed too anxious to race up and down the scale to bother with the note-perfect ideal flow of a Horne, a Berganza or a Swenson. She seems to love to play this role and to be on stage with these other singers, but a little more technical focus (and you just know she could do it) would make hers an extraordinary Rosina instead of another very good one. Claudia Waite, the Berta, sang her “sherbet aria” with the shrill, ungrateful tone one expects of, well, Berta the laundress.
Maurizio Benini in the all but invisible orchestra pit kept the wheels turning precisely without calling attention to himself – it was not a Mozartean reading of the score but a reliable base for the farcical doings on stage. The whole evening seemed calculated in that direction, and it was gracious of him to be so self-effacing, but sometimes Rossini works well as a partnership.